U.S.-Led Airstrikes in Syria

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow for National Security Studies, CFR

Janine Davidson

Senior Fellow for Defense Policy, CFR

Jonathan Tepperman

Managing Editor, Foreign Affairs

TEPPERMAN: Hi, everyone. This is Jonathan Tepperman. I'm the managing editor of Foreign Affairs at the council here in New York. Thanks to all, so much, for joining us. We are here to talk about this unrolling American or coalition, if that's what it really is, air campaign in Iraq and now Syria.

We have two great people to help us sort through what exactly is happening and what the implications will be. Janine Davidson, CFR senior fellow for defense policy, and Max, CFR senior fellow for national security studies.

Let me hop right in and ask a few questions, and then we can open things up to the floor.

Janine, let me start with you. What exactly are we seeing? This is now I guess day two or three of the campaign. Do you -- do you see this as the beginning of a long, sustained campaign of frequent bombings? What are the end objectives, as you understand them? And how will we define success? The administration has been a bit vague on all of these things.

DAVIDSON: Yeah, thank you for that question.

I think that, yes, you know, the short answer is that it is the beginning of a long campaign. I think we can expect more bombing. But I think that the nature of the bombing will change over time, and I don't think that anybody should be under the delusion that bombing is what's going to solve this problem.

I mean, you heard President Obama say again and again, and then again with the U.N., you know, saying that we -- American air power and American military power in general, but American air power can set ISIL back a little bit, and that's what you've seen, but it's not going to, on its own, destroy ISIL and have victory.

I think what we have here, you had ISIL, who's been operating with a sanctuary in Syria. They basically are governing in Raqqah. They've got -- or they had -- training sites, headquarters buildings, financial centers, all kinds of admins, lots of, you know, military equipment.

Those -- those are pretty -- probably this first round of airstrikes, that was kind of like the first round of easy targets. I wouldn't say anything's easy, but obvious targets, that will definitely do some damage to their ability to operate.

They can regenerate over time, and I think that's what you're gonna see.

How does the coalition, led by the United States, keep the sort of physical military pressure on this group so that they can't continue to spill out over Syria while -- and this is the big, risky part -- while they assist and train ground forces from across the region, especially in Iraq and with the Kurdish peshmerga and anybody else who wants to join this coalition, let's hope, while they train those troops up and hopefully get the regional actors to take responsibility for the conflagration that is taking over this region. That's the sort of long-term approach.

And, how do you define victory? You know, regional peace, eventually. But how do you define success of the American operation? I think that's yet to be determined. But I think in the short term or in the medium term, it's a situation where the regional actors are starting to actually take the lead in bringing the root causes of these conflicts to an end.

TEPPERMAN: Thanks, Janine. You said a lot that we're gonna want to unpack.

But let me throw things to Max, and ask him, first of all, why does the action in Syria seem to be so much more intense, so far, than what's happened in Iraq? The Times's reporting today that the bombs dropped yesterday in Syria count -- numbered more than the bombs dropped in the entire Iraq campaign so far.

And how much of this is really about ISIL and how much of this is about Khorasan and Al Qaida?

BOOT: Well, I think you answered your questions there, Jonathan. I think part of the reason why there's been a more intensive level of sorties so far in Syria than we've seen in Iraq over the past six weeks is that there is the Khorasan threat which is affiliated with the al-Nusra Front, which, if you listen to what the U.S. government folks are saying is a direct threat to the U.S. homeland and to U.S. interests and to our Western allies.

And so, I think that, you know, has led to a somewhat more intensive response.

I suspect there are also, perhaps, a few more obvious targets in Raqqah where ISIS has established its headquarters than was the case out in Iraq, where it was -- the airstrikes have really been a kind of form of tank blinking (ph), you know, just taking out an armored vehicle here, an artillery piece there, very, you know, low-level types of strikes.

And I expect that the strikes in Syria will level off very quickly. You know, if you actually look at what's happened with the airstrikes in Iraq over the past six weeks, maybe 190 airstrikes, something like that, they haven't achieved that much beyond blunting ISIS' momentum. And even that is questionable, because just in the last couple of days, there was very dismaying news out of Anbar province, where ISIS overran a camp occupied by roughly 800 Iraqi soldiers and killed at least 300 of them.

This was the horrible, embarrassing rout for the Iraqi army, similar to the way that they were routed out of Mosul. And this suggests how far we have to go and how inadequate these bombings are going to be to actually achieve President Obama's stated objective of degrading and defeating ISIS.

BOOT: At the moment, I think we're certainly able to degrade ISIS, at least marginally, but we are a long, long way from -- from defeating them. And if this is all we're going to do is just drop a few bombs, we're certainly not going to achieve that objective.

There -- there has to be a much more serious campaign that would involve sending combat advisers to work with the Kurdish Peshmerga, the Iraqi security forces, the Sunni tribes and the Free Syrian Army, all of the proxy forces we're counting on to help fight ISIS.

Their capacity to do damage to ISIS right now is -- is very, very limited. They need a lot of help. They need help from embedded advisers.

I think we also need to be launching, frankly, a direct American special operations effort of the kind that we previously carried out in Iraq, sending our Tier 1 high-end special operations forces to target the ISIS network and degrade it in the way that they are so good at.

There is a long, long way to go before we can even accomplish that, because at the moment, President Obama is not even allowing our -- our special operations troops to operate within the field with -- with the people they're supposed to be advising.

So you know, this is just the start of -- of -- of something which, at the moment, looks to me to be fairly fuzzy and ill-thought out, and -- and how we get from here to the president's rather ambitious objectives, I'm really not sure.

TEPPERMAN: So you -- you share, both of you, this pessimism about the efficacy of air power alone.

Janine, what are your thoughts on whether and when we're likely to see more boots on the ground or at least letting the boots already there do the kind of work that they're supposed to be doing?

And -- and what do you make of this very public tension between what the president has said and what General Dempsey has said on this question?

DAVIDSON: You know, first of all, I don't think that the strategy is fuzzy and ill-defined; I think it's risky, and I think that everybody knows this.

I think the stated objectives of the airstrike are not to solve the problem but to -- to do exactly what Max said, which is to -- to blunt the momentum. Whether or not -- I think he and I are in agreement that blunting the momentum is necessary but not sufficient.

So what happens next? You blunt the momentum, and is that enough to create some sort of -- enough time and space for -- for us to train up these partner forces?

And I think that's where the risk lies, and I -- I hear Max being very pessimistic about that.

I'm -- I'm -- I think it's -- I think it's ambitious, and -- and we'll see -- we'll see where it goes, and I think a lot of it depends on how quickly other nations start to pitch in.

I also think that it was incredibly important that the military effort finally break the boundary between Iraq and Syria.

It was -- it was absurd to think that you could have an effort, a military effort against ISIL in Iraq when the safe haven and the operating administration and everything else of -- of your enemy is over the border in Syria. It's like you have a hole in your bucket. You can't do that.

And so this is a good -- you know, in the very short term, that was a very good moment, because that was a -- that was a legal and political barrier that -- that the coalition had created for -- for itself.

On your -- on your last piece about the -- go ahead.

TEPPERMAN: No, please.

DAVIDSON: About the -- the boots on the ground, I think -- I think there's a little bit of much ado about nothing about this, "Dempsey says, 'If we need boots, I'll make a recommendation,'" and you know, "Obama says, 'No boots, absolutely no boots.'"

Let's all be, you know, be smart enough to understand that there's a difference between policy on the one hand, which is what the president has -- has got to have, and you know, his objectives, and -- and military planning, which is to plan for all kinds of bad stuff and to make sure that if the situation changes, that you're ready to provide your best military advice.

And I think that's what you're hearing General Dempsey say, is, "Look, if the situation changes, you know, I'll recommend boots," and it may be something like this could happen.

So what the -- what the White House doesn't want to do publicly is -- is entertain all these hypothetical bad ideas or bad outcomes. And so I just think it's a little bit of, you know -- the media's a little bit reading into that more than there is.

I think there's a lot of disagreement among experts and all over the place about whether or not the training effort is going to be fast enough, quick enough and sufficient enough to turn this effort over to the partners in the region.

But I think we also know what doesn't work, and what doesn't work is a United States' massively led effort that ends up in, you know, some sort of an occupation.

And so this is the balance that we have to try to strike here.

TEPPERMAN: Right. But let me try and push you on that, one step further.

Do you think that given the limitations of the -- of air power alone and given the -- the slow speed with which training of opposition forces has taken place so far, do you think that we have started down a path that will inexorably lead to some kind of an American ground presence beyond what we have now?

DAVIDSON: I wouldn't be surprised, but I -- of it going in either direction. Right now, I think it's -- I think it's too soon to tell whether or not -- you know, it also depends on how -- on how long you want to let things go.

I mean, Americans especially are very impatient people. It's like, "We bombed them, why isn't this thing over with," you know?

We've -- we've bombed them, we've set them back, their momentum back, and it's going to take time for any ground offensive to begin.

The trick will be to see if they regain their momentum, and if they do, then you're going to have a different conversation about whether these ground forces are going to be able to -- to do the job. And that's when I think you're going to see people say, "OK, well, maybe -- maybe we need to have guys on the ground."

But I mean, I'm open to being convinced that this can -- that this can work, but it's going to take time. It's going to be very uncomfortable.

BOOT: If I could offer, Jonathan, a slightly different interpretation of what's going on with General Dempsey and with General Austin and with General Odierno, all of whom have basically said in one way or another that we're going to have to insert advisers, combat advisers alongside the -- the proxy forces we're trying to mobilize in Iraq and Syria.

The reason they are not coming out and more publicly recommending that is because it's pretty clear that the president is ideologically opposed to that course of action. He doesn't want to hear it, because remember, this is a guy who came to office opposing the war in Iraq, so he certainly doesn't want to be involved in another ground war in Iraq.

But make no mistake about it. The weight of credible military advice is that we need to have, at a minimum, a substantial force of advisers embedded with these forces.

That's coming from -- not just from the serving generals, but you're hearing it also much more loudly from the retired generals like Jim Mattis, Tony Zinni, Jim Conway and others. These are folks who have a lot of credibility, who have served in that region, and that's what they're saying.

And you know, the president so far has been ignoring that, and you know, you're -- you're getting some hints from -- from, you know, General Dempsey and -- and others currently in office that they would like to go in a different direction.

But it's very muted, because I think they are feeling a lot of heat from the White House not to deliver these recommendations publicly.

®MD+IN¯®MDNM¯TEPPERMAN: And do you -- do you feel that that will -- will have to shift? That is that -- that -- back to my last question for Janine -- that we are headed for a greater ground presence whether the president likes it or not?

BOOT: Well, I don't know, because it's not going to happen unless the president authorizes it. Nobody's going to force him to send more troops.

The question is how serious he is about achieving his stated objectives, which, let's recall, he keeps saying is, "Our objective is to degrade and to destroy ISIS."

Well, to quote General Jim Conway, "Under the current scheme that has been laid out, we don't have "a snowball's chance in hell" of destroying ISIS. That's just not going to happen. We can degrade them to some extent. And I suspect that President Obama may be happy with that, as long as they're not a lot of more, you know, publicized atrocities, like more beheadings or mass rapes, or other gruesome acts by ISIS. But if -- if such things do occur -- and there's probably a good bet that they will occur -- then that -- I think that will increase the pressure on President Obama to do more to make good on his ambitious pledge.

BOOT: By the way, if I could mention one other thing, which I think also is worth discussing, I would love to know what the administration's policy is towards Bashar Assad and his regime in Syria. Because let's recall that in August of 2011, President Obama said that Assad must go. And as recently as a year ago, he was contemplating air strikes on the Assad regime. But now, we're actually bombing in Syria, but we're not targeting the Assad regime. In fact, we're giving a heads-up to the Assad regime, apparently, that we were going to carry this out. And in his speech today at the U.N., President Obama's words about Assad were very measured, as well as about Iran. He didn't reiterate his call for Assad to go. And so, this raises the question of whether we are, in fact, implicitly cooperating with the Assad regime against ISIS. If that's going to be our strategy going forward, I would be curious -- it would be interesting to get some more clarity on that from the administration.

TEPPERMAN: Janine, let me ask you a question about this coalition such as it is. Why -- well, first of all, do you think the participation of a few Arab monarchies here can help? I attended the annual briefing that Iran's President Rouhani does for journalists in New York yesterday. And one of the things he said that I thought was interesting was that there -- there's something strange about countries that have funded radical groups in Syria now joining the bombing of other radical groups.

The question I guess is, are other people in the region noting that irony and are bothered by it? Will the participation of the Gulf monarchies and Jordan make any kind of a difference materially or in terms of P.R.? And where -- where is the rest of the West? Why is not a bigger coalition, like the one we saw in Libya?

DAVIDSON: Well, I think the coalition is growing. I think that your point about, you know, the irony of, you know, one group in the Middle East and another group in the Middle East is -- is -- is interesting. Because, I mean, if -- this is what happens, right? I think that this coalition is really -- you know, it is probably more important politically than it is material right -- materially right now on -- on (inaudible). Because to have a number of Sunni-oriented allies come together, or partners come together and say that they are all opposed to ISIS -- you know, understanding that this is a wicked problem and you don't know what's going to come next is actually a very powerful and important thing.

I mean, otherwise -- and this is kind of back to -- to Max's point -- when guys like Mattis, Vinny and Conway, all retired four-star Marines, say that this isn't going to defeat ISIS, they're right in the physical military sense, that the American military could absolutely go in and -- and defeat them. But the big question is -- and this is the question that we've learned over the last 10 to 15 years -- is then, then what? And then we occupy Syria and then take the fight to Assad? And then -- and then what, right?

And so, I think this idea that -- that there's a never-ending cycle to this conflict that we, as the Americans, are going to insert ourselves in is exactly what on the political side people are trying to avoid. Which is why it's so important to have the partners in the region actually take the lead here.

And do they look wobbly politically? Yeah. Do they look wobbly militarily? Yeah. But at the end of the day, you know, if -- if they don't step up, then, you know, we will continue to be occupying these regions, and the cycle will continue and continue and continue.

So, what I don't hear from, you know, the generals that know how to apply the science of war to defeat an enemy -- what I don't hear is what the political pieces come after, and how you're going to actually extract yourself from this problem and find any kind of lasting peace in the region that doesn't spill back over to the United States and outside the region.

TEPPERMAN: Well, I have a lot more questions, but I would be a bad moderator if I hogged the floor. So, let's open things up to the folks who are with us on the phone.

OPERATOR: Thank you. At this time, we will open the floor for questions. If you would like to ask a question, please press the star key followed by the one key on your touch tone phone now.

Questions will be taken in the order in which they are received. If at any time you would like to remove yourself from the questioning queue, you may press star, two.

Again, ladies and gentlemen, if you would like to ask a question, please press star, one now.

We are currently holding for questions.

TEPPERMAN: Well, while we're waiting, Janine, I want to ask you again -- I understand that the president's strategy is to try to avoid greater U.S. involvement -- a reoccupation of Iraq -- what have you -- by bringing in as many regional players and opposition forces as possible. But do you think that's going to work? And do you -- going to think -- do you think that will work in a timeframe that we are, in the United States, comfortable with?

DAVIDSON: Well, it depends on what problem you're trying to solve, right? I mean, if you're trying to solve the "how many bad guys can you kill" and "can you take over Syria?", then no, we would probably be better at that, on the one hand. On the other hand, you know, the broader problem is, this is a regional conflict. I mean, ISIS' main focus is in the region. You know, they want to establish a caliphate. They want to -- they -- what they would love is just for everybody to leave them alone and -- so that they can do what they want to do. And then we wouldn't have this problem of, you know, homegrown terrorism and Western, you know, passports coming back, and these kinds of things that people are so worried about. But then the question is, you know, can you live with yourself? Can you live with just letting this region devolve into some -- into a greater conflagration?

And so, I -- I think that we cannot solve that second problem. Only the regional actors can solve that second problem, and it will take a long time. And it -- and it -- and, you know, if I -- I don't know what's going to happen, but Americans could get very impatient and decide they need to amp it up. In which case, we could be right back where we started from.

TEPPERMAN: And what's your sense, Max, of where we are right now in terms of getting local players to play a bigger role, whether it's bringing the -- the Iraqi army back on line, re-igniting some kind of greater participation from the Sunni tribes, training the -- the non-extreme Syrian opposition? Give us your -- where you see as the sort of state (ph) of play right now.

BOOT: I don't think we're very far along. I mean, it's nice that we had a few Persian Gulf allies and Jordan send a few airplanes to bomb Syria, but that was really a symbolic action. It doesn't have much impact on the ground. Those countries are never going to send troops to do the fighting. And the people who are actually going to be doing the fighting, hopefully, are going to be the Iraqi security forces, the Peshmerga, the Free Syrian Army, and the Sunnis tribes. And of all those, I think in many ways, the Free Syrian Army and the Sunni tribes.

And of all those, I think in many ways the Free Syrian Army and the Sunni tribes are the most important, but they are the least far along. They -- they, especially with the Sunni tribes in Iraq, but also in Syria, they are not comfortable right now allying themselves with the United States because for good reasons they don't really trust us.

In the case of the Iraqis, they remember how they aligned themselves with us in 2007. We promised them that we would look out for them, that we would keep them on the Iraqi government payroll as the Sons of Iraq. And then we left. And we left them to the tender mercies of the Shiite sectarian regime. And so that's what drove them back into the arms of ISIS.

So they have very good cause for not trusting us. And it's going to be a tremendously difficult job for us to break down those barriers of distrust, but that's what you have to do in order to be successful. Nobody is contemplating, you know, reoccupying Iraq or occupying Syria. That's not on the table.

I think the more credible military options that very well respected military men like General Tony Zinni talked about are sending something on the order of 10,000 troops, perhaps something like that, so that we can carry out active advising to build up these forces so we can call in airstrikes, so we can -- we can send out some of our special operations raids to degrade the ISIS infrastructure.

That's the kind of commitment that I think would be -- have a more greater likelihood of success, but would be a much tougher sell with the Obama White House. The problem is that as long as we only make a very minimalist commitment, it's going to be hard to get a lot of our allies, potential allies on the ground to put their necks on the line in order to fight with us. They have to be convinced of our seriousness.

And sad to say, I think we've lost a lot of credibility in the region when we -- when President Obama has done things like last year laying out a red line for Assad and then allowing him to cross it. So we have -- we have a lot of rebuilding to do in terms of getting the kind of trust and credibility that we need in order to mobilize our allies.

And I'm not sure that we're doing enough on that, even on the very, you know, tactical, practical level, you know, where we read that the Pentagon only plans to train about 5,000 Free Syrian Army fighters some time next year. Those are just grossly inadequate to the size of the challenge that we actually face.

TEPPERMAN: Operator, do we have any questions queued up?

OPERATOR: Yes, sir. Our first question comes from Hugo Dixon with Reuters.

QUESTION: Yes, Jonathan, Max, Janine, I had -- well, a sort of series of questions around basically the Assad's question. I mean, it seems like he's going along with the airstrikes at the moment because he thinks he's benefiting from them. And that's causing some problems with some of the Syrian moderates who actually -- not all of them, but some of them are beginning to object. Initially, they were quite keen on these airstrikes.

Now, it seems to me that, you know, that it's going to be a very difficult path for Obama to tread to, I mean, to tread both the Syrian moderates and Assad. I mean, in theory maybe he can do it a bit, but when as the campaign proceeds, one imagines that it's going to get harder and harder for him to tread that line.

And the problem I imagine is that if he gets -- if Assad actually actively objects, then the whole legality of the operation will be under threat. And if the Syrian moderates conclude that this is really against their interests, then the moral basis for the operation will be undercut.

So, I don't know if there's a good way of squaring that circle, but I mean just one sort of question I'd like to throw into the mix is: Is there any chance at all of getting a political deal in Syria? Because obviously if you could get a political deal with -- between the regime and the moderates, then you basically would have gone a very long way towards solving the problem.

But one of the things that concerns me is that perhaps by wading in in the way that the U.S. has done, it will actually take the pressure off Assad for him to actually come to the table -- or not Assad presumably, because it wouldn't be Assad. Assad would have to go, but some of the other people within the regime -- takes the pressure off them from coming to the table.

Anyway, that's a sort of slight sort of I suppose -- a cat's cradle of questions, but I think you get the drift of what I'm asking.

TEPPERMAN: Thanks, Hugo. And let me put a point on it by asking both Max and Janine whether there is this sense that -- in the region -- that we are now acting as Assad's air force and whether that's going to cause or is causing problems or concern. And whether there is any attempt to do what Hugo suggests, which is push for a deal, whether that's even in discussion right now.

BOOT: I think the concern about the U.S. acting as Assad's air force is a very legitimate one. And it's not just a question of Assad's air force, but it's really the air force for the Quds Force in both Iraq and Syria where we are being pushed into de facto alignment with Iranian-backed militias, which I think is something of great concern, should be of great concern on moral as well as practical grounds.

The moral ground is let's remember that the Assad regime is responsible for the death of perhaps 200,000 people in Syria, or at least a substantial portion of that 200,000 people. It's killed far more people than ISIS has.

Now, ISIS is pure evil, but let's not forget that the Assad regime are the folks who are dropping barrel bombs on civilian neighborhoods and using chlorine gas. They are evil, too. So I would be very reluctant to get very deeply in bed with Assad and his Iranian enablers, not just for that moral objection, but also the hard-headed strategic one which is that, as I mentioned before, the key to defeating ISIS is going to be to mobilize the Sunni tribes in both Syria and Iraq against them.

There is no way those Sunni tribes are going to be fighting at the behest of a coalition that includes Iran and the Quds Force. That's not going to happen. So, trying to align ourselves with these extreme Shiite sectarians to battle extreme Sunni sectarians I think is not a winning strategy.

But I fear that may be what we are doing de facto because President Obama is now stopped stalking of bombing -- of trying to depose Assad and we're not bombing Assad, which you would think at the very least we could, while we're in the act of sending airplanes over Syria, we could at least get rid of the Assad air force, which has been engaged in a murderous terror bombing campaign against civilian neighborhoods for more than there years now.

But we're not doing that. So I think it raises real questions about what is our policy towards Assad. Now, I -- and that I think is causing a lot of consternation for the Free Syrian Army because they're happy to see us bomb ISIS, but they want to see us bomb Assad as well. They don't want us to give Assad a pass because if we do that, then there is a very real risk that the regime will take advantage of the damage that we're doing to ISIS, rather than having the Free Syrian Army take advantage of that.

I don't think that would be in our interest. We certainly don't want ISIS dominating Iraq and Syria, but nor do I think we want the Quds Force, because remember Iran is the number one state sponsor of terror there, and an avowed enemy of the United States. They've been fighting us since 1979. We don't want them in charge any more than we want ISIS. We need to be supporting the more moderate factions, which do exist, and who are -- who are not on either extreme.

But I fear right now that we may wind up de facto, as I said before, aiding -- battling one extreme at the behest of another extreme.

TEPPERMAN: Right. Well, so, we clearly have this problem where our enemy also happens to be our enemy's enemy.

Janine, how does the administration deal with that?

DAVIDSON: Well, not very well. I don't think anybody's dealing with it very well. I mean it is a -- Max is right, the caller is right, or the -- it is an absolute wicked problem.

I think what you're hearing from the administration -- well, first of all, they didn't take the fight to Assad for the last two years, and they have very slowly, if at all, tried to build up and arm the Free Syrian Army, when there were plenty of windows earlier on when that maybe -- maybe would have made more of a difference. And now, we have a bigger hole to dig out of.

I think -- I think a couple things here. First of all, you know, if you look at this -- this thing like the Sunnis just need to win or the Shias just are going to win, then you're just never gonna get there politically.

I mean, I think Iran is gonna have to be a player here. It is -- what you hear from the administration is that we're just gonna do this sequentially, you know. That, you know, Assad was really bad, but it was -- it was really hard to intervene there. But now we can kind of intervene and get these other bad guys, ISIS, and then we'll just reassess and deal with it later in the hope that things get better.

I mean, I think what's gonna get better in the meantime, in the best case scenario, is what Max says, that the Sunni tribes will become more capable and empowered and be able to take the -- take the fight to Syria.

But I just don't know that that's gonna happen. I just think we have -- it's a -- definitely a hugely problematic issue.

I'm also not so sure that Assad is going along for the moment. I'm not sure what he could do.

I mean, we say -- remember last year when, you know, airstrikes were too hard because, you know, all the air defenses. But those air defenses are arrayed in a different part of Syria. I'm not so sure how much of a -- of a fight Assad could have put up against the array of airstrikes that went last night.

So there's some -- probably a combination, something in between him going along and him actually not being able to do much about it over that part of Syria.

TEPPERMAN: You know, it's interesting, your comment about the administration's sequential approach highlights another ironic similarity or parallel with the Iranians. One of the things Rouhani stressed yesterday is that they also favor a sequential approach, whether it's dealing with the -- in -- Rouhani said that in his phone call with Obama last year, that they discussed many potential areas of cooperation, but both decided that they needed to deal with the nuclear brief exclusively first and then move on to other issues.

And on Syria, he, interestingly, said that they recognized the problems with the regime, but are committed to dealing with the terrorism problem there first, before they do anything -- whatever that would be, if it would be anything -- to push the government there in some kind of direction.

Operator, do we have another call queued up?

OPERATOR: Yes, sir. Our next question comes from Trudy Rubin, with the Philadelphia Inquirer.

QUESTION: Hi. Thanks to all of you for doing this. I just want to follow up on what's been discussed before.

As you all know, there was a fairly high-level visit by deputy Iranian foreign minister to Saudi Arabia recently. I'm wondering whether you see any sign that the Saudis and the Iranians may be coming to a point where both sides recognize this thing is getting out of hand for both of them and they have to think about how to tamp down sectarian war, and what impact that would have on the Syrian part of the equation.

And then, just on the Syria piece, even assuming that President Obama sent special forces who could help in the field and so on, we still come back to the point Janine raised, even if one started pushing ISIS back, there's no there there. The country is split.

So unless you get reconciliation from the proxy war, or the countries that are fueling the proxy war, there is no government to take over in Sunnistan. And so, you would have some other groups emerging.

I mean, as you know, Max, I mean, the moderates have been decimated. And even if U.S. was training more, their training successes have -- are notable for failure.

So, what would be the aftermath, even if the U.S. got more militarily engaged, because there is no political movement that could bring stability to the Sunni part of the country?

You know, so, first, you see a bigger negotiated solution, possibly, if Iran and Saudi Arabia could get their act together, and then, secondly, whether or not that happens, you know, who on the Sunni side is gonna be able to do any kind of deal?

TEPPERMAN: Let's deal with this question of a possible Iranian-Saudi rapprochement first. Rouhani yesterday was -- sounded like he was enthusiastic about the idea, talked about how it would be natural for Iran and Saudi to work more closely together, although he didn't say what he's going to do to make it happen. But Zarif did just visit.

So, Janine, Max, do you see anything in the cards there?

BOOT: No. I think it's extremely unlikely.

And if you look at it from the Iranian perspective, you know, well, both Iran and Saudi Arabia view themselves as being the leaders of the Shiite and Sunni blocs, engaged in this life-and-death struggle across the Middle East. Why they would suddenly try to make a deal with the other side is not clear to me. I don't think the conditions are there at all.

And, from the Iranian perspective, I think their view is they're actually making good progress. I mean, their -- you know, their militias are in control of a good chunk of Iraq and Syria, to say nothing of Lebanon.

And, you know, they were alarmed about some of the advances that ISIS is making -- has been making, but, you know, General Suleimani, the head of the Quds forces, personally gone to Iraq. He's been leading a counteroffensive.

So I think the Iranians are probably feeling reasonably confident right now, and the Saudis are feeling very alarmed, not only by that, but also by the state of the American nuclear negotiations with Iran, which they are convinced will leave Iran in a position to acquire nuclear weapons, which would then lead Saudi Arabia to try to acquire its own nukes.

So, I think it's just fantastic to imagine that those two sides could reach a deal. And even if they could, as Trudy points out, the political actors on the -- on the nonregime side in Syria are so fractured, you're not gonna -- it's gonna be very hard to bring them back together.

And I think many of Trudy's points are very well taken. There's no question that, as Leon Panetta just said, the administration would have been much better advised backing the Free Syrian Army two or three years ago when they were a much more potent fighting force. The fact that we have neglected them for these two or threes, allowing the Nusra Front and ISIS to grow at their expense, means it's going to be very hard to reconstitute them.

I think we still need to do what we can and do more that we're doing, but it's -- it is very, very tough. I think there are probably better prospects in Iraq even -- although there we have a long way to go, too. Because since our pullout from Iraq in 2011, the capability of the Iraqi security force has plummeted.

The -- the U.S. military has recently judged that only about half of the units in the Iraqi army are free of -- of a large degree of sectarian taint. They're not able to supply themselves. They're not able to maintain basic functions of a war fighting organization, which is why you've seen them crumble in Anbar and in Mosul and elsewhere. So there is an awfully long way to go, even in Iraq. But I think there is more -- there is more potential there for raising effective ground forces than -- than in -- than in Syria.

TEPPERMAN: Mm-hmm. I think we're all pretty much agreed on the second part of Trudy's question about the -- the -- the sorry state of the moderate opposition and the lack of a there, there should the campaign against ISIL succeed.

So let's move to another question, if we could.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Jessica Spone (ph) with CCTV America.

Excuse me, Ms. Spone (ph) your line is now open. Please be sure your phone is not on mute.

QUESTION: Can you hear me?

OPERATOR: Yes, ma'am.

QUESTION: There we go. OK, thanks for doing the call.

Janine, you mentioned earlier, you talked -- addressed this gap in time between the training of the Syrian rebels and when they'll be ready. And I just wanted to ask both of you, what are the options for ground forces in Syria, given that it's going to take time to have ground force on the ground? I mean, with the -- I don't know how many -- if we have any numbers on the people who have been trained covertly. Are those candidates? Are there any other options? What does that look like?

TEPPERMAN: Max or Janine, do either of you want to jump in?

DAVIDSON: Well, I mean, I -- I can -- I could start. I mean, I think that we -- we just -- we just discussed that. I mean, the -- there are -- there are actual options to put all kinds of boots on the ground, but they're not politically viable ones. That the president has -- has ruled out American boots on the ground in Syria for sure. I think that some people disagree with that.

And in the meantime, I think we just went through this. Free Syrian Army, you know, I -- I actually agree with Max we -- we missed the window of opportunity a couple of years ago to get the ball rolling and to start supporting that -- that -- that group. And now we have a much bigger hole to dig out of.


TEPPERMAN: And what exactly do you understand -- in your understanding, are we doing now? The president...


TEPPERMAN: ... has spoken several times now about greater U.S. commitment to the FSA. But is anything happening?

DAVIDSON: Yeah, I mean there were -- there were supposedly, over the last couple of years, there were some covert efforts going on, but I don't know what those are. But now what they're saying is -- is, as Max said, they're hoping to get, you know, 5,000 fighters off the ground a year. And they're training them in -- but the Saudis have offered to let them train on their soil (ph).

So they're taking people out of -- of the region and training them up and trying to then put them back in.

So I mean, it's -- it's -- this is not something that happens overnight. And it's definitely not something without risk. And so, I think -- I mean, the -- the hope is that using air power and what -- what's available with forces for now, that they can -- they can keep things from getting worse. I mean, they -- they've been bad enough, and the people seem to have been willing to -- to let that happen.

So I think it's gonna take -- it's gonna take a long time. I don't see foreign boots going into Syria any time soon. That's not necessarily saying they -- they -- they couldn't, but they -- there's no political appetite for that right now.

TEPPERMAN: Let's take another question, please.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Bob Howard with Lockheed Martin.

QUESTION: Hey, Janine and Max, I can't think of two better folks to do this than you too.

First, you know the dilemma has always been this issue, this challenge between the political safety of limiting boots on the ground and the number of forces that the military believes will need capacity or given the capacity to be successful. And then in this endeavor, where you're fighting what could be considered an army -- or at least they're acting like an army, a conventional army, as well as a terrorist organization -- you're (inaudible) both of them.

And that's not combat troops. It's logistics, parts, maintenance, support, but also the enablers like home-basing predators and highmars (ph) that have no operational risk, but are real game-changers for this type of fight, both inside Iraq and across the border.

Do you see any understanding or flexibility in the administration dealing with the military and DOD at this point to introduce those capabilities?

DAVIDSON: You know, (inaudible), I'll just say two things. First of all, I don't necessarily think that it's only because of safety. I think that's a big issue for some people that they don't want to put American boots on the ground in Syria, especially.

I think it's because the sense is that the more this operation looks like a unilateral American military operation, the more likely you're gonna have blow-back, and the more likely this cycle is gonna continue, and the more likely it's gonna become less about the regional problem and more about America. And that's -- that's legitimate concern, I think.

But on your point about what does it really mean to say that you're going to support other actors to put their boots on the ground? And I think -- I think you're -- you're right. And it's interesting because we were talking about this morning that apparently General Odierno has said that they -- he wants to put a division headquarters in.

Well, what does that -- what does that give you? It gives you, you know, some command and control, logistic support, those kinds of things. But I don't really know what he means by that. If that's the kind of thing he's talking about, then maybe he is thinking along the same lines that you are. But I think we'll probably find out in the next couple of days.

TEPPERMAN: Let's take another question.

BOOT: I would...

TEPPERMAN: Oh, sorry, Max. If you don't mind...

BOOT: Yeah, that's fine.

TEPPERMAN: ... I just want to take one or two more questions because we're almost out of time.

BOOT: Sure.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Garrett Mitchell with the Mitchell Report.

QUESTION: Thanks very much. It is -- it is -- it is my understanding that what the president has said is that there's a two-fold objective here. One is the degrading, and the other is the destruction, that we, the United States predominantly, are in the degrading business, not in the destroying business. That's up to the people in the region.

But in order to do the degrading, we have this four-part strategy that he lays out, the fourth leg of which is no troops on the ground. Let's assume that at some point he's gonna -- he -- he will be forced to make a change on that. I'm not suggesting that he will, and I'm not asking you to believe it. I'm saying (inaudible) sort of a thought-of (ph) experiment, which is that some time in the next 60 days he is persuaded somehow that we're gonna put boots on the ground and that it's something in the neighborhood of the 6,000 to 10,000 that various people have been talking.

QUESTION: What period -- and let's assume that we do that and that it achieves the military objectives that people like Mattis and Connelly and others have talked about, that -- that we are successful in that regard, what period of time are we talking about where the addition of troops on the ground successfully makes enough of a difference that we can then make the determination that we have been successful or successful enough in -- in the degrading part?

So it's a two-part question, which is what's a reasonable amount of time to assume it would take to get to something that we might define as success?

And second, what -- I -- I don't want to say metrics, because that -- that's probably too -- too -- too -- too definite -- but what -- what -- what milestones or what markers could we look at and say, "Well, we've -- we've done what -- the best that we think we can do in these circumstances"?

TEPPERMAN: Thank you.

I want to take one more question now, since we're almost out of time, and then have Max and Janine make their closing comments around those two.

So if we have another one queued up, let's have it.

OPERATOR: Yes, sir. Our last question comes from William Murray with Energy Intelligence Group.

QUESTION: Yeah, hi. Thank you very much for this -- this talk. Very timely, of course.

But I'm just wondering if -- I guess it's the last question, so I can get a bit out there -- but are we being a bit -- a bit flip about dealing with these issues?

It seems to be very narrowcast, and none of us seem to be willing to debate the larger driver of this conflict, which is the inter-Sunni battle between Wahhabi and Salafist on one side and a very nefarious, more moderate, almost undefinable Sunni Uma (ph) on the other, and that until we're really -- I mean, these are literally pinpricks, not just in a tactical frame but also in a much larger frame, and nobody in Washington -- and I've been to a lot of events -- nobody in Washington is talking in these deeper terms, because they don't really want to fight this much greater conflict. They don't want to involve themselves, and I can guarantee you that the American electorate shall not involve itself.

It's an if-then statement. If it gets this -- too deep, we will -- we will exit (ph) the -- the Middle East in ways that we haven't really contemplated.

What do you to think about that?

TEPPERMAN: Thank you.

So Janine, you first. What's the timeframe for success, how do you measure it, and should we -- could we be doing anything about this larger conflict within the Sunni world?

DAVIDSON: Yeah. I mean, I think these questions together sum up the whole problem, you know. What does success look like? What does it look like to the people in the region, and what does it look like to America and its Western allies who are trying to get a handle on this.

I mean, at a very, very minimum, it gets to the question -- I mean, it gets to the question of interest.

I mean, at a very, very minimum, what America and even the European allies and Australia, who's having troubles too, don't want is for this problem to ripple back to their capitals and to their -- to their cities.

And so to that extent, at a very minimum, trying to contain this fight is -- is one thing that you could say is sort of a measure of success.

When will that ever end? Maybe never. I mean, this -- this is one of those, you know -- you've transitioned something from war to something that looks like crime, and you manage it and deal with it, and that's -- that's not a very pretty answer.

And you look at Afghanistan and Iraq. You know, those -- the wars don't end just because we -- we decide we're finished with them.

I mean, the idea is that an outside actor can only do so much. The idea is to put the local actors on a trajectory where they can continue to maintain stability and work towards peace.

You can't fix the whole thing by being an outside actor, and I think that's -- if ever there was a place where this was true, it's -- it's -- to the larger driver of this conflict question, the inter-Sunni, the Sunni-Shia problem, at a minimum, if we -- if -- if outside actors can -- can protect people, innocent civilians -- and we've failed miserably in the last two years to do that in Syria -- prevent spillover and galvanize the region to actually start to deal with these underlying problems.

Because it isn't like anybody from the outside is going to walk in and redraw the boundaries like they did after World War I and tell everybody, you know, what corner they're supposed to go to; it has got to happen from the leaders in the region.

And that's -- that's -- that's the wicked problem of the whole thing.

TEPPERMAN: Max, do you want to add anything? Are we facing the Long War, Part 2?

BOOT: Well, I think it is a long war, and we have to get used to it, but we also have to understand that it is possible to have some success.

I mean, the Shiite-Sunni divide is not a new one. We dealt with it when we were in Iraq in -- in earlier years.

And I remember the success of the surge in 2007, 2008, which focused initially primarily on the threat from Al Qaeda in Iraq, the -- the -- the precursor of ISIS, in other words, the Sunni extremists. And by substantially degrading that threat, it made it possible for the government in Baghdad to then take on the Shiite militias.

And what you discover in the course of that is that very few Shiites or Sunnis are actually extremists. Most just want to be left alone. They don't want to engage in these sectarian battles.

The reason they do so is when you have a breakdown of law and order and complete inability of -- of central governmental institutions to maintain any -- any degree of security, people then seek security from sectarian militias.

You've seen that happen before in Yugoslavia. You've seen it happen in Rwanda. Now you've seen it happen in Iraq and Syria.

And so I think our strategy has to be -- should not be to align ourselves with either the Shiite or -- or -- or Sunni extremists of -- of one side or the other, because as long as they are -- either side is powerful, it will generate a reaction from the other side, and it'll keep the cycle of violence going.

The key has to be to empower more moderate forces, which do, in fact, exist.

The Sunni tribes, for example, are a potential force for moderation. If we can get them to rise up again, as they did in 2007, that has to be our objective.

And you know, in terms of how we measure success, we're not necessarily going to eliminate ISIS altogether, although President Obama has -- has set a high bar by saying, "We're going to be out to destroy it."

I think if we can just substantially reduce the threat from ISIS so that it no longer controls territory the size of the United Kingdom, I think that would be a -- a pretty good victory. And we're, you know -- we're a long way from that right now.

And -- and I would reiterate what I mentioned at the beginning, is that six weeks of airstrikes in Iraq have not seriously shaken the hold that ISIS has on a substantial portion of western and northern Iraq. A few more airstrikes are not going to shake their hold on a substantial portion of Syria.

We need a much more full spectrum strategy with more resources and determination to win in order to -- to undo the gains that ISIS has registered over the course of the last year.

TEPPERMAN: Well, Max, Janine, that was just superb. A lot of wisdom on an endless list of impossible questions.

I'm very grateful to you for sharing your time with us. And thanks to everyone who called in.


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